Peeple debuted yesterday to the universal and logical scorn of the Internet. And it deserves every bit of that scorn, but we’re missing the larger problems it represents.
If you’re unfamiliar, Peeple is basically Yelp for human beings: You’re supposed to log on and give everybody a review and a rating. Before you ask, yes, the people who created this app are self-involved to a staggering degree. The Washington Post‘s superb takedown of Peeple hilariously features a YouTube video the company had taken down. The subject? One of its creators being visibly annoyed Facebook wouldn’t let them just suck up all their data to dump on the app.
As you might expect, the app itself is more or less a privacy disaster. Their “integrity features,” which almost boil down to “Can you legally drink and access Facebook?” are a joke; the kind of people who it seems will use Peeple are likely more than happy to be jerks under their real name and then cry oppression when it bites them. To add somebody to the database, you need to give Peeple that person’s cellphone number, which is idiotic in so many legal, moral, and professional ways that I could write an entire post on it.
What will Peeple do when domestic abusers add their victim’s phone number to the app? What will it do when somebody who’s just been fired adds the entire company directory to the app? How will Peeple handle ugly breakups? How will Peeple deal with the inevitable investor demands that teenagers be allowed to use the app? What, precisely, is Peeple planning to do with all these phone numbers? And leaving aside all of that, which I thought of as issues in less than a minute, how many stars would you give somebody who abuses your trust like that?
Even if it’s not deliberately designed for abuse, I seriously doubt they’re going to filter every “review” by hand, so the gateway to abuse is hanging wide open.
What’s sad is that this doesn’t make Peeple unique. The tech industry, and the app sector in particular, have some very severe problems, but by far the most glaring is the fundamental idea that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, especially when it comes to user data. How many apps have you been “given” on your phone that you didn’t want which were enabled automatically? One where you’re not entirely sure where the information they collect is going? How often do you even check the privacy settings of the apps you download?
Adding to the problem, it’s paired with a moral myopia disguised as optimism, and no company is immune. Even when an idea is blatantly a violation of trust, it’s fine as long as nobody complains. In other words, to the tech industry, legally allowed and morally correct are the same thing. Until, of course, somebody turns that around on them; privacy is for kings, not peasants.
Peeple could only manifest in a culture of entitlement that views human beings as data points and privacy as an annoyance. I don’t see Peeple having a long life as it seems as though it is fated to become utterly toxic almost immediately. But it should be worrying that it ever came into existence at all.